House passes two-year, $12.9 billion state budget

  • State Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown, sits on a tractor he brought to the Statehouse plaza in Concord, N.H., on Thursday, April 11, 2019, to protest the proposed 12.9 billion, two-year state budget proposed by House Democrats. A sign attached to the tractor reads in part, "Don't bet the farm on these huge tax hikes." (AP Photo/Holly Ramer) Holly Ramer

  • Signs attached to a tractor parked outside the New Hampshire Statehouse in Concord, N.H., on Thursday, April 11, 2019, express state Rep. John Burt's opposition to a 12.9 billion, two-year state budget proposed by Democrats. The Republican from Goffstown arranged the display on the day the House was set to vote on the budget. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer) Holly Ramer

  • Lawmakers are seen in Representatives Hall at the State House on Thursday as members of the House prepare to vote on House Bill 2. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Members of the New Hampshire House prepare to vote on House Bill 2 at the State House in Concord on Thursday.

  • The manure spreader with signs about the increase in spending in the 2019 fiscal budget outside the State House on Thursday, April 11, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A 1953 Super C Farmall tractor with an antique manure spreader owned by John and Phyllis Burt of Goffstown sits in front of the State House with signs about potential spending increases in the state budget Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/11/2019 12:37:32 PM

The message was unavoidable. A few steps from the State House on Thursday sat a tractor, a rusted cart and a hand-painted sign that read, “$417 million in new taxes and fees! ... Will this much manure make money grow on trees?”

The scene, set up by Goffstown Republican John Burt, wasn’t the official position of the House Republican caucus. But as members filed in to take their seats, it might as well have been.

In a strictly party-line vote, the Democratic-led House passed a $12.9 billion, two-year state budget, drawing criticism from Republican Gov. Chris Sununu who said that it would destroy the so-called “New Hampshire Advantage.” The budget, which passed Thursday on a vote of 225-159, included about $500 million more in state spending that Sununu proposed in February.

Democratic House leaders said the proposal focuses on providing property tax relief to towns and cities, boosting education aid and “frontloading” the state’s child protection and mental health systems.

Included in the Democrats’ budget bills were efforts to fund schools through a five percent capital gains tax, an effort to roll back future cuts to the business profits tax, pour money into transitional and designated receiving facility beds for mental health patients, the reintroduction of “revenue sharing” for cities and towns, and the creation of a paid family and medical leave program for public and private workers.

Democrats lauded the proposals as a meaningful attempt to send money back to cities and towns and alleviate property taxes while supporting state social services.

“This budget finally begins addressing longstanding problems that we have avoided for years by kicking the proverbial can down the road,” said House Majority Leader Doug Ley, of Jaffrey.

But the budget, which included broad changes to one submitted by Sununu in February, drew strong opposition from House Republicans, who criticized it for including a new capital gains tax and 157 new state employees, and for spending surplus funds on new programs that will have ongoing costs.

New Hampshire is flush with revenue at the moment, spurred in part by a one-time tax haul after corporations moved money from overseas following tax cut legislation signed by President Donald Trump. Rep. Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican, warned that the business tax revenue would not last forever, and said the state should not spend on initiatives it might not be able to support down the line.

“We will regret it in the near future,” he said. “Maybe next year. Maybe next biennium.”

And some Republicans drew a comparison to 2009, when a Democratic-led Legislature passed a budget that they said saddled the state with unsustainable spending, which they said forced strong cutbacks during the 2011-12 speakership of Bill O’Brien.

“We are about to celebrate Groundhog Day because ten years ago this month, the House did exactly the same thing that the House is heading towards doing,” said Rep. Dich Hinch, the House Republican Leader.

Over the course of two hours, Republican representatives fielded a series of floor amendments to restore key pieces of Sununu’s budget proposal. Each fell by near or exact party-line votes.

Rep. Rick Ladd, the former chairman of the Education Committee, proposed a pair of changes to House Democrats’ education funding approach. One would keep the stabilization grant – devised in 2011 to offset reductions in the per-pupil adequacy formula for state funding – at 2018 levels rather than restoring them to 2016 levels. Since 2016, the grants have been reduced by four percent annually; Republicans say schools have adjusted to the new rates, but Democrats said the cuts have hurt schools and should be reversed.

Ladd also proposed cutting out the proposed capital gains tax and reverting to a more conservative funding structure that restored “fiscal disparity aid”: funds to schools based on the number of pupils with free or reduced lunches. Both proposals failed on near-strict party lines.

Another push to restore Gov. Chris Sununu’s paid family and medical leave framework was similarly unsuccessful. That program was replaced by a Democratic proposal to install a universal program mandating private businesses offer the leave, whether through a private option or a state plan that could allow 0.5 percent wage deductions from employees.

Rep. Lynne Ober, a Hudson Republican, argued that Sununu’s plan, which relies on a state employee plan offered to private sector employees voluntarily, was a faster way to create a program without imposing a mandate. But Democrats countered that Sununu’s plan had not been properly vetted in any House committees, carried too many uncertainties due to a volatile pool of users.

Not all amendments proved one-sided. Responding to mounting controversy in recent days, House Democrats joined Republicans to restore Sununu’s proposed $250,000 a year in funding to the Internet Crimes Against Children Fund. That money, which assists a law enforcement taskforce in investigating traffickers and predators on social media and other websites, was taken out by Democrats as part of a broader purge of items in Sununu’s raft of one-off expenditures. But a public backlash from law enforcement and a press conference with Sununu Thursday brought the issue into the public eye, and the money was restored in a 376-4 vote.

And two weeks after removing $26 million in funds proposed by the governor to build a forensic psychiatric hospital, House Democrats walked that move back somewhat. That move was made by House Democratic leaders after pressure from disability rights groups to instead invest the money in renovating New Hampshire Hospital and funding out-patient services to assist transitions for mental health patients. But on Thursday, after blistering criticism from Sununu and Republicans, Democrats amended the budget to devote $1.2 million to devise a blueprint for a future facility in time for budget negotiations in 2021.

The budget moves to the Democratically-controlled Senate, which will infuse its own priorities. But facing political divide, Democrats argued their budget was sound.

“We’ve heard a lot about how well our state is doing as we’ve been discussing the budget this morning,” said Rep. William Hatch, a Gorham Democrat. “This may surprise some of you: I know many, many, many households in this state that aren’t doing so well. ... This budget attempts to help everyone share the prosperity that’s coming through the state, not just maybe the chosen few.”

(Information for the Associated Press was used in this report.)

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